Sarah Rose Cavanagh Ph.D.

Once More, With Feeling

How to Gather Better

5 lessons for better parties, events, meetings, and conferences.

Posted Aug 10, 2019

Sarah Cavanagh
Source: Sarah Cavanagh

I loathe small talk.

Meaningless chatter makes my teeth itch, my skin tighten and crawl.

Immediately after long bouts of it, I have to dive into something emotionally challenging or intimate, to try to wash off the sticky shallowness of superficial encounters.

“No child… has ever mastered the art of small talk, or would ever want to. It’s an adult device, a covenant with boredom and deceit.” —Ian McEwan

The only thing that makes me crankier than small talk is wasted time. Waiting for late people. Traffic. Meetings that could have been emails.

There is a common principle here, I think, and it is that our time on this planet is limited, and the limit draws closer by the day. Why would we want to spend our precious shared moments in encounters that lack substance, meaning, or purpose?

Thus, when I picked up Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, I was already primed to embrace her central message—which is that our time is precious, and thus we should gather more meaningfully.

The book covers baby showers and industry mergers, small dinner parties and secret meetings of high-powered diplomats (with more than a few names dropped), all to illuminate the common principles of meaningful gatherings.

Here are some of her main ideas for how to gather better.

1. Commit to a “bold, sharp purpose.”

We spend so much of life drifting along with “unquestioning allegiance to convention.” Committees need to meet monthly in stuffy conference rooms. Baby and wedding showers involve only women and an endless opening of gifts, while everyone smiles and coos with increasing stiffness. Mother’s Day is marked with flowers; Father’s Day with cards about golf and fishing.

We aren’t to be faulted—we are a social species whose very sense of reality is constructed through such social conventions (as I cover in my new book, Hivemind!)—but it doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something bolder, sharper, and more imbued with meaning.

Parker advises that you begin by figuring out the purpose of your gathering. And don’t conflate category with purpose—“retirement party” is not a purpose. “Honoring the contributions of this life-long high school principal to the education of every student she encountered and the betterment of the world at large” is.

If you are unable to identify the purpose of your gathering, perhaps it doesn’t need to happen. Let people reclaim their time.

2. Close doors and embrace boundaries.

Guestlist: We all hate the idea of excluding people, of putting others in that position of being the person not chosen by either team in dodgeball.

But Parker argues that gatherings are diluted by people who don’t contribute to the purpose or who will get in the way of other people sharing their more intimate selves. The size of the gathering also impacts the degree of intimacy and the amount of energy generated. Different numbers will suit different sorts of gatherings, but Parker believes that there is something special about gatherings of these sizes: 6, 12, 15, 30, and 150.

Sarah Cavanagh
Source: Sarah Cavanagh

Venue: A venue is a nudge, a suggestion of the type of gathering that is about to take place. I think we’ve all experienced gatherings that were too small in a giant space or that were too crowded, everyone’s elbows rubbing and a din of noise.

“A deft gatherer,” Parker writes, “picks a place that elicits the behaviors she wants and plays down the behaviors she doesn’t.”

You can also use the space to nudge people out of their expectations and habits. If you host your meeting in a conference room, people are going to fall into the social norms of that space. If you host it in a park, people might open up a bit, connect more meaningfully, generate more creative ideas.

Sarah Cavanagh
Villainous
Source: Sarah Cavanagh

3. Create a temporary alternate universe

You want to send your guests on a journey, to create a narrative. If you are hosting a social gathering, consider making each room a different part of the experience.

It’s as if Parker has been helping plan my Halloween parties all these years!

4. Don’t start—or end—with logistics.

“Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it,” Parker says, and so think carefully about your announcement, save-the-date, or invitation. Consider giving your gathering its own name that conveys the purpose, the goals, or just plain excitement about the possibilities.

Sarah Cavanagh
Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
Source: Sarah Cavanagh

Create a buzz around your event with fun reminders and lead-ins.

The day of your event, don’t waste the energy of the first few moments by making announcements about parking or wifi codes. Launch right into your purpose-driven activities.

Consider soliciting some information or work from your attendees beforehand, so that they are primed with purpose.

Cap things off in a meaningful way.

5. Actually host.

Don’t just assume that you’re one of the guests or attendees once they arrive. You are responsible for connecting and equalizing them, something Parker calls the “wonders of generous authority.”

Parker covers numerous activities and strategies for provoking people into more authentic, open conversations and sharing. 

A chill host is a bad host.

Sarah Cavanagh
Source: Sarah Cavanagh

Shared Principles

What is a gathering, really? So many of Parker’s examples have the sheen of officialness, gatherings that are mandated by work (meetings, conferences) or social conventions (birthdays, weddings).

But anytime one or more human beings spend time together, it is a sort of gathering.

I can see the relevance for my work as a college professor, for dinners out with friends, for how I live my life.

Death to small talk, and death to small, stale gatherings.